Ever since an international anticorruption commission in Honduras announced its first case against lawmakers last year, the panel has been under attack from the officials it is supposed to be investigating.
Honduran lawmakers shut down that initial inquiry, and the commission barely survived a court challenge.
Now, another blockbuster investigation shows what the lawmakers were so concerned about. The inquiry, known as the Pandora Case, produced charges against 38 politicians and officials.
It details a scheme to divert government funds to the governing party’s 2013 election campaign. Those named include former government ministers, powerful members of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party and his brother-in-law. The plot was also said to have directed money to the opposition Liberal Party.
At stake is not just the outcome of this investigation, but the survival of what is viewed as the most powerful brake on official misconduct in Honduras, where corruption is deeply entrenched.
Only Guatemala has a comparable anticorruption tool, which has proved to be a unique international experiment. There, an investigative group of international prosecutors backed by the United Nations has charged four former presidents since it was established more than a decade ago. Hondurans held weeks of torch-lit marches in 2015 to demand their own version.
The Guatemalan commission charged President Otto Pérez Molina with running a customs fraud scheme in 2015, forcing his resignation. He has been jailed since then — offering perhaps another reason Honduran legislators are uneasy about an inquiry on their own territory.
By announcing the details of a new investigation last month, prosecutors are laying down a challenge to the government and its allies in Congress: Derail this case like the first one, and Hondurans could be provoked to a breaking point.
“It’s very clear that people are fed up,’’ said Melissa Elvir Chávez, a lawyer with the Democracy Without Borders foundation. “I think it would be too big of a political risk if it is not allowed to advance in the anticorruption court as it should.”
Officials in Washington have supported the anticorruption effort in Honduras, encouraged by the idea that improving the rule of law in the Central American country is a necessary step to overcome the poverty and violence that push thousands of Hondurans to try and enter the United States each month. But in foreign policy, other issues often take priority.
“The Honduran government knows the Trump administration cares a lot more about immigration and drug trafficking than it cares about corruption,” said Charles Call, a professor at American University in Washington who leads an academic team that monitors the Honduran anticorruption commission.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration brought some pressure to bear on Mr. Hernández. After meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, Mr. Hernández agreed to accept the appointment of a Brazilian prosecutor, Luiz Antonio Guimarães Marrey, to head the anticorruption commission, two months after he was first named.
Vice President Mike Pence injected the United States into the contentious battle to pick a new attorney general in Honduras last week during a meeting with Mr. Hernández and other Central American presidents in Guatemala City. The vice president called on Hondurans to select an effective top prosecutor.
The next day, Friday, legislators dumped the five candidates under consideration and re-elected Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla to a second term.
In the anticorruption commission’s first case in December, prosecutors accused five former legislators of pocketing money from a special development fund that deputies can tap to spend in their districts. Within weeks, Congress voted to halt any criminal investigation into that fund going all the way back to 2006, and a judge dropped the case.
An appeal of that attempt by Congress to shield itself from prosecution is awaiting resolution from the Honduran Supreme Court.
The head of the anticorruption commission at the time, former Prime Minister Juan Jiménez Mayor of Peru, resigned, arguing that the Organization of American States, which established the commission, had failed to back him in his confrontation with the government.
A new twist followed in May, when a confusing Supreme Court decision included language that appeared to restrict the commission’s ability to collaborate with the attorney general’s new anticorruption unit.
An anticorruption activist, Gabriela Castellanos, called the court’s decision “malicious.” She said that Honduran institutions were too weak and needed the support of the international panel to investigate the country’s power brokers. Ms. Castellanos leads the National Anticorruption Council, an independent group that researches graft cases and played a crucial role in uncovering the Pandora scheme.
The new Pandora Case describes how almost $12 million allocated by the Agriculture Ministry for farm programs was instead channeled through two foundations to the election campaigns. Part of the money went to retail-discount cards that Mr. Hernández’s National Party distributed.
Mr. Hernández has told reporters that his government will work with the international anticorruption commission. “It is fundamental that justice is done,” he said. “Nobody is above the law, but in the same way, we should all seek the rule of law and the presumption of innocence.”
It will be up to the attorney general, Mr. Chinchilla, to ensure that the case moves forward. While he has been praised by many, including the United States Embassy, critics question his deep ties to the ruling party and lack of substantive results.
Although the first investigation into the theft of development funds last year named only five former lawmakers, the anticorruption commission’s former leader, Mr. Jiménez, said that as many as 60 current and former legislators could be involved, including the powerful head of Congress, Mauricio Oliva.
A review of the social development funds at the center of the first case shows just how casually government money was allocated — and why lawmakers may have been in such a hurry to shut it down.
Beginning in 2006, lawmakers set aside $20 million annually to spend on projects in their districts. Half of that money was spent at the discretion of the head of Congress, Mr. Hernández’s position from 2010 to 2014, according to an analysis of the program by Democracy Without Borders. Congress did not provide details of the spending that Mr. Hernández directed during those years.
The money goes to nonprofit organizations, some linked to the lawmakers themselves. Investigators with the National Anticorruption Council say that in many cases, projects were only partly completed, or not at all. Some nonprofits presented photographs of the same completed project as evidence that they had finished their work.
Over two days in 2015, five lawmakers wrote directly to Mr. Hernández — who was by then the president — to solicit donations, and two days later his office ordered the money disbursed, all to the same nonprofit organization, documents showed.
That organization was recently denounced by the National Anticorruption Council for fraud.
In one example of the ties between lawmakers and the nonprofits, Renan Inestroza, a National Party deputy, is linked to a network of such organizations that has received at least $3.8 million in government funds.
Mr. Hernández has also steered much of his presidency’s signature social program, Vida Mejor, which means Better Life, to these nonprofit groups, including one organization where his sister, Hilda Hernández, served on the executive board. Ms. Hernández died in a helicopter crash in December.
In 2013 — an election year — that organization received at least $3.3 million from the social development fund administered by Mr. Hernandez. Over the next four years, it received contracts worth $71 million from Vida Mejor, the most of any of the nonprofits.
Edmundo Orellana, a former attorney general, said it would be difficult for the courts and Congress to sabotage the Pandora Case and give lawmakers impunity, but they were certain to try.
“I think the courts will do everything possible to avoid a trial,” he said.
Impatient and angry, many Hondurans are warily watching.
“We want the corrupt to go to jail,” said Estefany Pineda, 28, a student. “We want justice, because in this country that word isn’t known.”
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